The W.A.G.E. roundtable at the “#Class” series at Winkleman Gallery, March , 2010. (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article that covered a talk by Hans Abbing who authored the book Why Are Artists Poor?. The event was hosted by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy).

The incentive behind this presentation was to set the tone for a much larger debate concerning the fair and systematic payment of artists.

W.A.G.E. describe themselves as, “An activist group of artists, art workers, performers and independent curators fighting to get paid for making the world more interesting.” Where I am often wary of workers unions becoming hamstrung by bureaucracy, W.A.G.E. seems to be very clear about positioning themselves in a sphere that is realistic for the creative field and with viable and attainable goals. The question now it seems is how to make a payment system sustainable.

In order to get the ball rolling on implementing a standard system (and hopefully writing in artist payments as a line item within organizational budgets), W.A.G.E. partnered with Artists Space who agreed to be the test case and potentially to become the first W.A.G.E.-certified art space.

I chatted with members of W.A.G.E to find out more about the organization, this partnership and their objectives for the future.

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W.A.G.E. was one of the many contributors to this Occupationzine (via

Claire Breukel: What was the motivation for founding W.A.G.E.?

 W.A.G.E: As cultural workers we began to realize there was no consistency in the type of remuneration that institutions provided. When we really began to examine the problem we realized there was a systemic blind spot within institutional budgets that seem to consciously write the artist out of the economic equation. Then we wondered what could be done. Then we started doing … mostly by having teach-ins and doing consciousness raising, and now in the last year or so a lot has changed for W.A.G.E. as we move toward becoming a nonprofit and actualizing our first major initiative: W.A.G.E. Certification.

CB: How did your recent partnership with Artists Space come about?

W: Artists Space contacted us last February (2011) after seeing our 2010 Artist Survey, and [they] initiated a conversation about the payment of fees and the meaning of ‘best practices’ in terms of how arts organizations work with artists, performers and independent curators. They wanted us to understand that paying artist fees and supporting artists is a priority for them and that they were willing to open their books to us to prove it. They were interested in setting an example to other institutions by becoming the first ‘W.A.G.E.-certified organization,’ so we took them up on their offer.

After some discussion it became clear that developing the criteria for Certification — which will include a minimum fee schedule, contracts and a model for best practices — was going to take some time and that the process needed to involve more voices than just our own. The series of open forums presented in conjunction with panels/symposia that we’ll present over the next six months in collaboration with Artists Space are each structured around an issue specific to W.A.G.E. Certification and have been organized to give the interested public a voice in determining what it will look like.

CB: Why Artists Space?

W: Artists Space has a 40-year history of providing support for artists in different iterations and with varying degrees of success. In spite of its name, Artists Space was founded by NYSCA [New York State for Council on the Arts] administrators in consultation with artists as a service organization that provided, in its earliest days, grants and resources but not exhibition space.

Artists Space came into being as part of the alternative space movement of the early 1970s, which resulted in part from the work of the Art Worker’s Coalition, and so its founding by a state agency gives it an interesting history of problematized cooperation between administrators and artists. This seems appropriate to W.A.G.E.’s approach and also to the doubling that many artists experience by earning a living working for arts organizations — whether commercial or nonprofit.

Stills from videos made by W.A.G.E. and broadcast on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, as a Performa09 TV Commission with CIRCULAR FILE.

CB: What is your timeline to implement a ‘W.A.G.E.-approval’ system at other spaces?

W: By the time the W.A.G.E. Certification program is completed and finalized in September 2012, we hope to have a group of about five nonprofit organizations involved to more powerfully launch this transparency campaign, spearheaded by our Artists Space partnership.

CB: How will you audit art spaces?

W: That process is being established as we speak, so it’s hard to discuss at this point. It will require an institution to produce proof of having paid artist fees separate from any expenses that might be covered so that we can be sure that they are not being folded together. What type of proof, how and how frequently it will need to be produced is yet to be determined.

CB: Can you talk about some of the feedback from attendees at the meeting? Both their concerns and desires?

W: We held an open forum which proved to be extremely fruitful and generative and also very clear and concise. It’s too much information than can be summarized in this context, so for those who are genuinely interested please see the meeting notes posted online here.

CB: Do you think a workers union paradigm can be applied to artists and exhibitions?

W: We believe that our community is perfectly capable of demanding what we need via constructive methods of solidarity and advocacy. We need to get paid for services rendered when we work with arts institutions, whether that’s defined as arts/cultural worker, contractor or freelancer and whether that’s for our work as artists or as people working in the art industry. There are other groups looking into the traditional union model, and we are in conversation with and support those efforts, but W.A.G.E. is moving towards operating as an advocacy and regulatory organization.

CB: What do you think of the Canadian solution to many of the issues you raise, CARFAC? And how does W.A.G.E. differ?

W: Canadian Artists’ Representation/Le Front des artistes canadiens (CARFAC) was formed in Canada in1967 and started from the same place where W.A.G.E. began in 2008 — frustration with an untenable and unjust labor model for cultural creators and presenters. CARFAC has and continues to be a useful and productive model, and we have been in consistent communication with them. Our goals have to take into consideration the US economy as we are looking for contemporary and very local forms of ensuring the payment of artist fees. We’re exploring self-regulatory measures in this preliminary stage, and CARFAC has been very supportive of this approach, which is encouraging to us. The possibility of legislative change is on the table for W.A.G.E. as well, but that would likely be years in the future.

CB: Hans Abbings’s stated in his talk “if we pay artists more, the value of artwork will decrease.” What do you think about that?

Why Are Artists Poor by Hans Abbing interrogates the relationship between art and the economy

W: Taken out of context it’s difficult to comment on the meaning of that particular statement. In general though, Abbing’s position emerges from a very unusual combination of professional training and experience as an economist, sociologist and a visual artist, and it’s important to note that his work is intended to provoke debate.

In his 2002 book Why are Artists Poor? he argued that large government subsidies to artists and to the arts (speaking specifically to conditions in the Netherlands) fuel the perception of art as exceptional, and that this leads to more people wanting to pursue a career in it, and to the notion that its exceptional or special nature justifies forgoing remuneration in order to do so.

He observed that this sends the message that forgoing or sacrificing payment is perceived as necessary to the production and exhibition of art, which also implies that art does or should transcend monetization — which is of course in contradiction to the monetization of artwork in the commercial sphere, resulting in a paradox that renders discussion about the value of art to be uncomfortable at best.

Abbing argues that encouraging this kind of specialness not only elevates art above other forms of production, it reinforces the notion among artists that we should work for free, for the ‘sake of art’ — this has broader implications as it extends into unpaid internships, low paid nonprofit jobs, etc. It is also part of what he identifies as a cluster of misinformation that leads people to enter the arts despite evidence that clearly demonstrates significantly lower average incomes among artists than in equivalent professional careers. In a winner-takes-all system, chances at success are slim to none, and yet, what is it about art — and artists — that draws increasing numbers of people into incurring massive amounts of debt in order to participate in it? These are the questions that Abbing is asking by way of a sociological analysis of behavior, encouraging us to take responsibility for our choice to participate — the first and most important condition out of which productive activism can emerge.

In terms of how subsidies function here in the United States, they take different forms ranging from grants and fellowships, to government funding, to tax-breaks that incentivize giving by individuals and private foundations. It could be argued that subsidies serve “the public good” by supporting the use value of art (culture), separating or freeing it from its exchange value so as not to compromise its content — and in so doing, as Abbing might argue, reinforcing its exceptional nature and making it even more difficult to assign a value to.

In theory, subsidies support the production and exhibition of art in institutions operating outside of traditional “consumption,” i.e. private ownership, but in reality there is no separation between the two: firstly because nonprofit institutions have always been connected to the commercial marketplace and are now more enmeshed than ever, and secondly, because art produced for public consumption in an institutional context generates cultural capital for the institution that can be leveraged back into more subsidies and monetized through ticket sales.

Exhibiting in nonprofit (subsidized) institutions certainly generates cultural capital for artists too, but without any direct compensation — namely an artist fee — there is no guarantee that artists will be able to monetize their cultural capital. Artists are expected to participate on the basis of speculation unlike actors, for example, who are paid for their work via their membership in the Screen Actors Guild [SAG] whether or not it results in becoming a box-office hit.

Building on Abbing’s thoughts on working for free: whether artists work in the studio (or in the ‘post-studio’) for free is not of concern to us. Our concern is that when an institution receives funding to present the work of artists — and in the case of museums is actually charging the public to view it — that is when remuneration should occur: when the work enters the marketplace, and this of course includes non-profit organizations.

CB: How can people get involved with W.A.G.E.?

W: Please come to our programs with Artists Space throughout the next six months and join our mailing list at We’re in the process of organizing and expanding our reach and our goals, in concert with other groups, like OWS Arts & Labor. Be part of the conversation. And if you have time/skills to dedicate to the cause please let us know.

W.A.G.E will be announcing the date and time of their February meeting at Artists Space shortly. You can always visit for more information.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...

One reply on “W.A.G.E. Searches for a Fair System to Pay Artists, Artists Space to Be Test Case”

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    –Artists are poor because they continue to subscribe to, and
    to perpetuate the unfortunate stereotype of that station that is commonly held
    by society. Until artists re-imagine a method by which their practice can be
    valued and validated by society we will continue to marginalize ourselves.
    Businesses and politicians alike recognize our economic resource and potential
    and take advantage of it. Artists functioning within the context of western art
    making seem reluctant to assume the responsibility for producing something that
    may be perceived as a valuable commodity that might attain a venerated position
    in the society. We cannot expect people to pay us for something they do not
    value. The solution for artistic economic prosperity or parity does not lie in
    the conception of the universality of compensation but in the manner in which
    we value ourselves and our contribution and help others value that

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